14 June 2007

June Bridges Race

My first Bridges Race, a year or so ago, has lodged in my memory as a sort of personal urban myth. I recall that I was staggered by how fast I ran it, and so was Martin who introduced me to the event and had never run it as fast, but did I break 16 or 15 minutes? It must have been sub-15, because for a long time my handicap was over 6 minutes and the purpose of that is to produce an overall time of 21.
Yesterday my handicap was 4:40, indicative of a major drop in performance over the year, and next month it will be 4:08. I didn't excel yesterday. Perhaps it was being in lengthy meetings, or perhaps a faster-than-ideal rush to the start (taking into account local road closures to accommodate giant cranes). Let's see how well I can write about it.
First, though, I need to digress a little. After I attended the presentation he and Helen gave at the Oxford Literary Festival, William Horwood had suggested we meet for a drink - in fact, supper was mentioned - at a north Oxford pub, with the stated purpose of talking about copyright, and specifically the copyright implications of his publishing material on his web site. On Monday evening, I spent a delightful hour or so taking a couple of drinks with the two of them but no supper because he had a proposal to write up as a matter of urgency before the idea evaporated. And also no copyright, which will have to wait for another day. Lots of running, though, as it transpired that Helen was formerly a very serious runner, a Warrior rather than a Purist like me (and rather than digress now I will write another posting to explain that).
Finding myself in the local public library on the Saturday, and lacking a book I wanted to read at home - I can scarcely get in or out of bed for piles of books, and the house has shelves of them everywhere, but none of them is ever the one I want to read - I thought I'd borrow one, and under "Biography" I found what I was looking for: William's childhood memoir, The Boy With No Shoes. I had heard him talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival a couple of years ago and wished to read it ever since: what better preparation for an evening with an author than to read his biography? Well, if I were the author concerned I might find that deeply worrying, perhaps even the sort of thing a stalker might do, but I am not obsessive - am I? - just interested.
He wanted to know what I thought of the book, of course, and it's not an easy one to comment on. I love the writing, the way it starts as the authentic voice of a five-year-old boy who finds so much of the world baffling, and the voice develops as he grows up. I will post more comments about it another time - when I have read the last couple of chapters, which is all that remain: it hasn't taken me long - when I give him (or them) the opportunity, I said to William and Helen, they completely take over my weekend.
But - and here comes the point of the digression - one thing that I will comment on is the language. The text is rich with adjectives and descriptions, and the use of simile is memorable. I particularly liked the image of some idea going over the young William's head like a flock of honking geese. Yes, I've been there, both metaphorically and literally. And, finally coming to the point, when I write about running, I should fill my writing with the same colour. I fear that, were I to review it now, I'd find it chock-full of clichés (not sure how to do accents in this email program - oh, the spelling checker has done it for me). Clichés leaping off every page. Clichés as far as the eye can see.
Which leaves me very little time to write about the race. It's coming to that time in Westminster when a run involves wading through tourists and parties of Italian schoolchildren, executing body swerves as an iPod-listening pedestrian steps into your path without checking his or her rear-view mirror, even metaphorically, and dodging the homicidal cyclists who are a year-round fixture on our roads and footpaths. It was warm, my training has not gone as intended (if only I was a Warrior instead of a Purist), I have become older - in fact, every possible factor mitigates against me running this race at a respectable pace. There, I have my excuses recorded for posterity. Whoops, another cliché. Perhaps I should work out how to write a computer program that will check for them - word processing programs already purport to analyse a writer's style, giving "fog index" figures if I remember correctly, so they could surely be programed to recognise turns of phrase that should only be used sparingly (or be used only sparingly, which looks as if it means something different: both meanings are intended!).
One of the crosswords I do each weekend once asked for the word for a holder of a medieval office whose task it was to clear a path through a crowd for the monarch. I recall that I had the checked lights so I had to find the meanings of the words that fitted, and eventually I came across the right definition in a dictionary. But the dictionary definition, greater in extent than the crossword clue, mentioned an additional detail: the office-holder (the solution to the crossword, unfortunately, escapes me now) would accomplish his task using a broadsword. How often I wish I had one to clear a path through the Italian schoolchildren, and perhaps to deal with the cyclists.
Right, another digression out of the way: I'm ready to start - poised by the marshall with the stopwatch as he counts down from 4:35, but when I am dispatched it's a steady pace I adopt. I can see the previous runner - Paul - in front of me, but even if I am to catch him I have the whole race to do it in.
The first part of the race, a couple of hundred yards which will double later as the finishing straight, is bounded on the left by a high wall enclosing St Thomas's Hospital. To the right there is a waist-high wall and then the Thames, with the Palace of Westminster opposite. It's one of the best urban settings you could ask for, for a race. But it's all familiar to me, so I just run.
Under Lambeth Bridge, with Lambeth Palace to the left across the road, the wandering pedestrians, oncoming non-competing runners, benches standing on plinths (taking up a large part of the path's with) and occasional bicycles are supplemented by street signs, lamp posts and bus shelters. Trees too. A pedestrian meanders in front of me, leaving nowhere for me to go other than into the end of a bus shelter, so I take to the road for a few strides. Then the path diverges from the road, a building on an island site between the road and the bank forcing the riverside path to leave the traffic.
Past that building and the path takes a sharp left turn where a competitor almost tripped me one month, turning in thighly without checking who was close behind, and then it weaves to the right and right again to cross a launching ramp that slopes down into the river. It then passes the MI6 building before a flight of steps leads up to Vauxhall Bridge.
I take most of them three at a time, aware that this is where it's easy to make up ground on the runner in front, but I haven't got a lot of strength in my legs to keep up that sort of pace. Onto the bridge and a pedestrian steps in front of me, forcing another swerve onto the roadway.
The great thing about this route is that it crosses no roads: it goes under one, twice, but otherwise is cunningly designed to keep runners and vehicles afely apart. So Vauxhall Bridge, with Ian's flat on the left hand side, is crossed with a river view to the right - not that I am stopping to look, but I do glance down towards the South Bank Centre, past County Hall and the Eye, remarking to myself how straight the river is at this point: a couple of years ago I ran back to the office from Putney, after rowing training, and the bends in the river made it economical to cross and recross when bridges were provided. (By the time I reached Vauxhall Bridge I was ready to walk the rest of the way, and had been on the road for well over an hour.)
The drawback of the route is that it's all on flagstones. It's not even relieved by a stretch of relatively soft tarmac, though there are points at which the road could be used if you wanted. Sometimes that's better than risking being run over by a bicycle approaching unannounced from behind.
Turn right off the bridge and along the Embankment, past a Henry Moore that I don't recall ever noticing. Here the pavement features a range of bottlenecks, and eoncountering pedestrians can be a problem with no refuge or alternative route available. Indeed, a large group crosses the road ahead of me and immediately spreads out across the full width of the paveent, forcing me onto the road again. Should I have given audible warning of my presence? Would they have paid attention, or would they have worked out what was required of the if they did?
Paul had been getting closer and closer, and none of teh faster runners had passed me yet, but along this stretch my legs always start to tire. Should I be doing some exercises just to strengthen them, or is it a lack of stamina?
Paul is getting further away, and the climb, slight though it is, up to Lambeth Bridge and then up over the bridge itself, always comes at an unwelcome point, with probably half a mile of the 2.3 to go. This is where those with less tired legs - or more stamina - or perhaps just fewer years - come past me. This time several faster runners catch and pass me, some as we cross the bridge, a couple on the finishing straight where I have nothing in the tank for a sprint finish. My highly ambitious training plan, designed to keep me in touch with Francis in the Great City Race, hasn't done the trick - not surprising, as I have done about three of the prescribed daily sessions (not counting the ones that said "rest") over the past six or seven weeks.
But even so I should have been able to do more. I don't suffer from that overwhelming nausea that hits me at the finish of a race I have run really hard. I jog back to St James's Park with two other competitors - John, whom I met at Hyde Park Corner on my run from Paddington to the office one morning, he having arrived at his office at 7.30 to go for his run, and Julia, who I thought I had spotted out running near Cropredy last August and who confirms that it was indeed her, and that she'll be there again this year, when I must ensure I turn out for the Saturday morning Hash.

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